Friday, January 29, 2016
History changes when it is re-read. The casual reader, as opposed to the historian, always reads history with one eye on the present: there is always comparison at work whenever we reflect on events we assume are faithfully recorded from the past. And this past is not itself fixed, since our appreciation of it has already been formed as an amalgam of contemporary interpretations. On re-reading Tacitus, therefore, the reader is also feeding from lasting impressions formed by Cecil B DeMille, Gladiator, I Claudius. Julius Caesar, Lindsay Davis, Spartacus and Caligula, at least.
But Tacitus set for himself a different task from that which the contemporary reader appreciates, in that he saw himself as merely a recorder, year by year, of the important events that affected the public life of the empire. Tacitus seems largely unconcerned with ordinary people, except where collective opinion bore down on those with power or influence or, indeed, to record where those everyday folk unlucky enough to be left in residence at the end of a siege were summarily slaughtered. Neither, by and large, do slaves figure, except when they are paid or cajoled to act above their pay grade.
Tacitus is interested in emperors, consuls, politicians in general, military leaders, armies, rich socialites and influential foreigners, especially enemies. The Annals of Imperial Rome thus catalogues internal intrigue and external warfare and records how both impinged on a society we continue, despite much of the evidence, to label ‘civilised’.
It was not an age where prisoners were taken, unless they could be sold. Within these pages there is much blood letting, many wars, and some fascinating detail on the myriad ways human beings can set about killing one another. Current horror genres could learn much from Tacitus, since the blend of blood and drama is unrelenting. This was also an age of ceremony, where gods had to be pacified, oracles consulted and diviners believed. Of course, if you chose not to believe the soothsayers, you could always have them killed. Served them right, one supposes. Never deliver a story you think might not be received gratefully. There will always be consequences.
But within these pages ceremony was often the determining factor. It could not be by-passed. And of course, being civilised, Romans maintained respect for the law. Murder, for instance, was always culpable, but when committed by bovver-boy emperors, no doubt tattooed to their little boots, the crime often went unpunished. Towns where only the old, the female and the young remained after siege were of course subjected to mass slaughter, because none of those left could possibly fight back. Just how important constitutional means were to these living gods is illustrated by a fall from grace whose consequence was the elimination of the offender’s entire family, just in case… In a particular case this also meant doing away with a couple of young daughters, but at the last minute an official noted that the law banned the execution of virgins. Not wanting to stand on ceremony, the executioner was invited to rape them first and then carry out his duty. Must do things properly… Presented with the severed head of a rival, offered as proof that instruction have been dutifully carried out, Nero calmly observed that the fellow had started to go grey.
But what also must be borne in mind is that Tacitus, himself, was no contemporary observer. His productive life was more than a generation later than any of the events described in The Annals, whose stories begin half a century earlier than that. So it is possible that the reported sexual acts in public, the free and almost communal use of prostitutes and the general contempt for almost everything below elite status was just exaggeration. It might just be that contemporary mores required a vilification of the past, and that Tacitus was willing to provide it. Pigs, apparently, do fly.
A stunning juxtaposition comes in a comparison of two reported cases. One poor chronicler historian had the cheek to suggest that Brutus and Cassius might not have been all bad, despite their having murdered an emperor. The author, of course, signed his own death sentence. A games promoter, on the other hand, built a stadium that in the event collapsed, killing and maiming thousands. His punishment was a limited exile, the judgment doubt influenced by the fact that it was only the plebs who suffered.
During The Annals, we perhaps begin to wonder why we read history and, indeed, why it is written. By the time we have finished this account, we surely know. The modern country seems to be a feeble invention when compared to the more durable empire, which itself can be remarkably transient. Empires exist to pursue conflict with other empires, usually at the periphery, but with the aim of maintaining stability at the centre, where there is a constant struggle for power. So while plotters were being uncovered and eliminated in Rome, the great external threat at the end of this era came from the Parthian Empire. In anyone does not recall the location of the Parthian Empire, please do check it out. And then re-read history.
Thursday, January 28, 2016
Chapter One – The Plot
Well, gentlefolk, at least that’s out of the way!
Chapter Two – The Characters
Young Tristram Shandy, so unfortunately misnamed, is so young he’s still in the womb. He doesn’t even condescend to appear until volume three! This means he writes a bagful of pages before he even has access to paper, pen and inkhorn. But there is his good father and perhaps better mother, who at the outset suffer the ignominy of being depicted clock-winding. There’s Uncle Toby, who has a passion for fortifications. In fact, verily indeed, whatever compass point provides the direction for whatever conversation, up will pop Uncle Toby and let off about mullions, parapets and ´scarpments. And don’t expect any assistance with vocabulary! Toby’s servant Trim and a forgetful maid called Susannah complete the cast. But there are others everywhere walking in and out of the tale, a farce acted through the momentary opening of doors, a trip to France and an occasional visit to the parlour for a pipe or a snifter.
Chapter Three – The Style
There will be no chapter three. The greatest of all philosophers, the very Slawkenbergius, assures us that the inclusion of third chapters inevitably lowers to tone of a tome, so these notes will have no chapter three, just to repeat what was said earlier. Thus, as a result of this pontification that we may not cross, this particular chapter three does not exist and is hereby deferred until chapter LXVIII of volume six.
Chapter Four – Noses
We all have one, we are told. Restating this perhaps more precisely, so that the good Doctor Hume might not be tempted to issue his objections, we all have the potential to possess one. But nose possessors beware! Be they long and judgmentally wagging, heavy and lewd or retroussé and apologetic, no nose is safe when the infant must be drawn forth into the world with newfangled assistance such as metal forceps. Imagine the relative frailty of the protrusion compared to the grip of metal tongs! And if the child be a male, let that be the end of it! Or perhaps the end off it…
Chapter Five – The Moral
Morals were always questionable. And since there is nothing left to say on the matter, let’s let chapter five be the same as chapter four. Except let us also include reference to nonsense, absurdity, Monty Python, Cervantes, Rabelais and perhaps anyone else who cares to call in. Including the young Tristram Shandy, gentlemen, the poor unfortunate lad whose memoir this reported ‘novel’ claims to be. Hilarity also must look in to confirm the status of masterpiece, a status obviously to be achieved the moment the redoubtable author, one Laurence Sterne, placed his pen upon paper in Shandy’s name. And let it also be said, that, despite its two and a half centuries of age, the memoir may sound surprisingly modern, if the word Pythonesque be validly employed. Not all readers might be of the opinion, but in the end, what does it matter?
Chapter Six – The End and The Plot Again
So that’s it! The end. Please have a look at my website.
A Pair Of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy was first published in the eighteen seventies. It is a romance of the Romantic era. A cursory glance from today’s perspective might suggest that the book has little to say about our own time, and that its significance, if it retains one, is purely historical. It could thus be read purely as a nineteenth century tale of manners, suitors, marriage pursued and formalised via the route of platonic encounter. But Thomas Hardy, if he be nothing else, was always a keen observer of social mores, airs and graces, and so A Pair Of Blue Eyes provides for the contemporary reader and intriguing picture of life as it might have been lived a century and a half ago. Where Hardy’s novel certainly does speak to our own times, however, is in its portrayal of social class in English society.
Elfride is an attractive young woman. She is middle class and apparently worried beyond her years that she may already be on the shelf. She is portrayed as rather fickle, sometimes less than focused, thoroughly aware of her social face, but strangely self-obsessed at the same time. She seems permanently to be analysing whom she might marry, and for what reason, but often from a standpoint of her own perceived standing. Her parents are keen that any suitor should possess commensurate status and have sufficient assets or prospects. This is where a young man called Stephen Smith falls short.
Stephen has as yet made neither a name nor a fortune. We learn that he is well educated, but has followed a curriculum far removed from that prescribed as a social passport by the prestigious schools. He is of low birth, since his father is nothing more than a manual labourer. Even a status elevated to that of the self-employed late in the story cannot make amends for having spent most of a working life as a mere employee. Elfride, however, seems to be besotted with Stephen Smith. He is of her age, and somewhat the wiser of the two. She is young, inexperienced, retiring but determined, and not a little myopic. They decide to elope when Elfride’s family declare their opposition. The couple travel to London by train, an act that in itself could easily compromise Elfride’s future marriage prospects, but Elfride immediately has second thoughts she declares she wants to return to England’s west country on the next train out of Paddington. Stephen insists on doing the right thing and accompanies her to preserve her safety. Stephen decides he must make his way in life before Elfride or, more importantly, her parents will accept him. Elfride declares she will wait, faithfully.
Thomas Hardy tells us that “…when women are secret they are secret indeed; and more often than not they only begin to be secret with the advent of a second lover.” Elfride does not seem to be too secret about anything when Mr Knight appears on the scene. He is a decade older than her, rather stiff and correct, but also solvent. With Stephen away, out of sight becomes almost out of mind and things duly progress.
There is a strange episode when Elfride saves Knight’s life on a cliff top. We are reminded perhaps that this is more soap than opera when there is an even stranger episode when Elfride is, conveniently for the plot, blamed for the death of a young lad who, unknown to her, became obsessed for distance. There is always a need to write letters in romantic novels. Characters always need to commit their thoughts, requests and accusations to paper. And, in an age without instant communication, words thus committed to the permanence of paper can be read, and also re-read or misread by anyone who cares to scan them. And so when Knight presses Elfride on her past, words both spoken and written are misunderstood and misinterpreted.
Stephen returns and meets Knight. Stephen has been in India and has done well for himself. Here is another truth of the time in that it is easier to climb socially via the colonies. In the end there are surprises for both men and for the reader as life takes all the characters along paths they believed to be familiar but eventually lead them into unknown territory.
“Of course; a sensible woman would rather lose her wits than her beauty,” is another of Hardy’s gender musings, an area where the book might grate with many a modern reader. But equally there is much in A Pair Of Blue Eyes that remains familiar. Even that last quoted opinion retains significance in an age that is perhaps more obsessed with personal appearance than any other, an age where cosmetic surgery transforms bodies as commonly as wisdom changes minds. Thomas Hardy’s novel ought to remind us that there are perhaps some universal truths, despite the fact that their appearance may change.
Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Perhaps not many people regularly read non-fiction, especially when it might appear to emanate from academic sources. Thus a title such as Development As Freedom by Amartya Sen, if encountered on a book browse, might suffer immediate and regrettable rejection. Subjects such as international politics, economic change and human development considered via the writings of a Nobel Prize winning economist might not suggest bedtime reading. But read again! And preferably read many times, for this book surely places the word ‘human’ at the heart of the development process and, because of that, is not only readable, it is an absolute joy.
Sen’s argument is simply encapsulated in the book’s title. As human beings change and as the societies in which they live transform, development can be measured, certainly perceived, and possibly achieved via greater life expectancy, access to education, improved gender and social equality, increasing population, technological progress, access to health care and a host of other life enhancing and enriching phenomena that all of us now seem to take for granted, bur, perhaps paradoxically, few societies actually achieve.
But for Sen, and this is the truly optimistic core of the book’s message, is that all of these identifiable and measurable phenomena are mere effects of a more fundamental cause. Development, for Amartya Sen, is about increasing human freedom. The concept includes freedom of choice, freedom to participate, freedom to express and in fact any freedom that might be exercised by an individual or community in the context of enhancing, not undermining, the wider social groups or societies in which the people live. There is undeniably something wider called society and it is thus society’s role to evaluate policy and practice to ensure that social and economic change enhance the sum of freedoms that people can claim.
But let it also be clear that this is no neo-liberal, individuality-is-God, markets-know-best diatribe. Development As Freedom is a concise, sometimes intense, but always sympathetic look at various aspects of economic and social change and the generality of development policy that can stimulate it. The point is that the human race and the societies in which it lives make progress for the common good when participation is widened, when inclusion rather than exclusion is the goal, when the whole range of human potential, rather than that of an elite in restricted roles, is allowed to blossom. And it is this overall message that makes the book such a positive and enriching experience.
Early on in the book, Sen sums up his approach by saying that “Poverty can be sensibly defined as capability deprivation…” and thus that the alleviation of poverty, in all its manifestations, allows human beings to develop whatever capabilities they might have, capabilities that would otherwise never be realised. Furthermore, greater social equality is more likely to provide opportunity for the development of this human potential than any other route.
In making his case, Amartya Sen deals the occasional body blow to a few nostrums. Reassessing Adam Smith from the original, Sen identifies that the original intellectual arguments on markets were at least partly aimed at countering the power and influence entrenched interests of the time. Now those would have certainly arisen out of the previous century’s tendency to grant and support monopolies. Sen thus casts Smith as least partly as a moderniser, who wanted to transform economic structures in order to transform society as he knew it. He also finds in Smith an admission that opportunity might have more to do with birthright than ability, or even availability of educational facilities. The champion of the market principle, as we now know him, is here not seen to claim that markets in themselves will always provide the most effective or efficient basis for economic interaction.
Sen also illustrates how so-called free markets might not work to the advantage of the majority. He cites an example of a Pareto-efficient system in which 1000 people each give up one dollar, without caring too much about the transaction. One person pockets the thousand dollars as profit and will clearly fight hard to retain such privileged status. When opinion about how the society transacts, it is likely that the individual who profits will speak loudly to maintain the status quo and, given the status of economic success, the person will also have access to the modes of expression needed. The thousand do, however, have the right to vote and so democracy is at the core of any approach to enhance freedom, but to be effective it has to function. Sen reminds us that there has never in human history been a famine in any democratic society with a free press.
Since development, in Sen’s vision, is about developing the capabilities of all people, it is clear that human development as a goal is first and foremost an ally of the poor, rather than the rich and powerful. Modernisation theory is thus merely a starting point for the process as Sen envisages it. But beyond this beginning it must continue until participation is increased and real democracy is achieved. Policy and practice should be continually evaluated to ensure the proper spread and effectiveness of their goals. Development As Freedom is much more than a description of what we are and from where we have come. It is nothing less than a far-sighted and clear prescription for political practice and provides a yardstick we might use to evaluate it.
Saturday, January 16, 2016
Henry James, great though his name remains, can be something of an acquired taste for some readers. Lest it be said, in terms a lay person unacquainted with this writer’s indeed impressive array of both products and talents, that this particular artist of the written word might, on occasions perhaps far too frequent to count, might occasionally employ one or two - let us fall short of the word ‘many’ - employ just a few too many of the aforementioned raw materials of his craft - words - for good measure. And sometimes this opacity of prose does obscure rather than enhance meaning, of that there is no doubt. Equally obvious, however, is the writer’s complete mastery of elegance and pace. So what better place for the still wary to start than a pair of short works, The Turn Of The Screw and The Aspern Papers?
The Turn Of The Screw is a classic ghost story. It’s told as the first person account of a governess appointed to a well-to-do family that has no mother. A distant father and a housekeeper live alongside a young girl and an older boy, who has just returned from school with a letter that suggest he does not return.
There is something strange about the children. They seem worldly wise beyond their years, almost political in the way they seem to require adults always to comply with their wishes. And then there are the sightings, apparitions of previous employees, perhaps, people who might have looked after these same children. What is the history? What are the circumstances that led to these poor souls being apparently trapped in this place in the psyche of two small children?
Turn Of The Screw is a ghost story, but it certainly avoids the clichés and falsely hyped drama that so often affect the genre. It thus, in the hands of Henry James, achieves a status that is merely fiction. No genre need claim to intervene, since its development and indeed denouement is always more about the characters rather than the events.
The Aspern Papers is another first person account, but here the storyteller is engaged in a search, a pursuit, in fact, and not a self-analysis. The Aspern of the title was himself a writer, but one active in the early part of the nineteenth century. By the time our narrator goes in search of the writer’s papers, we are decades into the future, well past the writer’s death.
Aspern’s former lover, now known as Miss Bordereau, who, it is believed, still holds the archive of this revered but little-documented genius, lives in Venice with the young and attractive niece, Miss Tina, who is likely to inherit. The narrator travels to Italy, makes contact with the household by renting rooms in their dilapidated canal-side home.
Miss Bordereau proves to be something of a recluse, so even arranging an audience where the narrator might discuss the Aspern Papers proves difficult. But the old lady knows how to do business and exacts a high rent from her tenant, meaning that the mission must be completed as quickly as possible, before funds run out. The eventual financial beneficiary of the arrangement will be the young Miss Tina, who soon becomes an object of interest for our storyteller.
The Aspern Papers is a thoroughly successful short novel that works by layering various plots and motives so they can all progress together via luscious, if rather dense prose. For a reader unused to James’s style, these two often coupled classics perhaps form a perfect introduction.
Lawrence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey is very much the follow-up after the success of Tristram Shandy. The author does not try to re-create the near anarchy of the earlier work. Indeed, especially when compared with Shandy, Sentimental Journey at times even approaches coherence. But it remains a variety of coherence that might confuse a modern reader, since the book is neither a novel nor a travel book, though at times it aspires to be both. What it is not can be listed, but what exactly it is remains hard to describe.
The Reverend Yorick, apparently, is on a European tour, specifically to France and Italy. Along the way he relates his experiences, but he is less inclined to take in the scenery than chase the local talent, an activity that appears to demand much attention and time wherever it might be pursued.
If any theme does run through Sentimental Journey, then it is this, the Reverend Yorick’s pursuit of skirt. Be they chamber maids or merely ladies of leisure (day or night), the good Reverend is clearly interested. But his exploits are couched in an absurd eighteenth century politeness, an unwillingness to speak directly of the matter in hand, gloved or not. The style, perhaps, was as absurd in its own time as it appears to be today. As a consequence, there are significant passages where the narrator seems to spend much time not discussing the thing he is actually talking about.
Lawrence Sterne is determined that his sentimental traveller should explore the experience of travel. This is a journey to experience as well as within it, but experience here is a process, not a destination. In modern terms, he is the kind of person who wanders past Notre Dame in search of an ice-cream, and would see neither irony nor contradiction in the act. He is perhaps the quintessential British tourist who looks at the stained glass from the outside, proclaims it to be less than it’s cracked up to be and then complains that the ice cream was the wrong flavour.
Yorick does meet several interesting characters, but he rarely lets their diversion come between himself and his pursuits. And some of these prove very humorous indeed, possibly even funny.
Setimental Journey is unfinished. It is probably autobiographical. Much of the material feels like it may have been expanded from a journal kept on the road, kept by Sterne himself, while he made his own travels on the Continent. But there remains the ultimate problem for the modern reader, who will always want to ask, “Where is all this going to lead?” And the answer is, experientially, precisely nowhere. And that’s the point.
Friday, January 15, 2016
If Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell had been a piece of music, rather than a novel, it would probably have taken the form of a gigantic Bartok arch. Its apparently simple, but rather disconcertingly foreign-sounding start would develop into something that sounded quite new, but also strangely familiar. It would reach a central climax at its keystone, but a climax that would not satisfy in the conventional way that music often does, by achieving a stable tonic tutti in a home key, expressed via harmonies that reassure, confirm and reinforce. No, this climax would be violent, but also strange and disconcerting, offering as much question as confirmation. And then it would retrace its steps, but revealing them transformed by the very process of revisiting them. It would progress through its stages of development until it returned to its opening theme, mildly but intellectually transformed.
And it would be here that we would realise that all the material the piece had presented was in fact derived from the same basic idea, transformed via style, tempo and time to appear different, despite its progress through different episodes, which only now appear to be linked. At the end of the process, we are sure where we have been taken, but not at all sure where we have arrived. It might look and sound like the beginning, but we now see it anew, transformed, perhaps even distorted, even a little devalued, a reality newly interpreted.
But Cloud Atlas is a book, a literary, not a musical journey. The territory visited in the atlas, however, is like any inhabited by any artist, that of the human intellect and psyche. Like Julian Barnes’s A History Of The World in 10½ Chapters, it appears to meander from story to story, from setting to setting, with only barely random links. We begin on a nineteenth century Pacific voyage of assumed cultural superiority, graduate to a nineteen-thirties cooperation between a famous, syphilis-ridden composer and a young, naïve and bisexual amanuensis and then suffer a brush with corporate vengeance as a journalist seeks to expose safety risks with an atomic energy installation. A British vanity publisher, vainer than most of his clients, suffers success with a gangster memoir and walks straight into demands for a greater slice of what he assumes is his own action. Many decades later we encounter a dystopia, where a humanoid bred purely for service graduates threateningly to a more enlightened state. Into a further indeterminate future, we find a complete disjunction between rich and educated versus peasant and poor, groups who do not even share the same environment. And thus we reach the keystone in the arch, when the characters of a dystopic future cooperate to complete a mission that appears to be in both their interests. They share a design, a motivation, perhaps even values.
Then in turn we revisit each scenario we encountered on our way up. Each still occupies its own place in space, time and perception, a state in which they know their past but must speculate on their future. Even if we go backwards, time still progresses. By the time we have descended the other half of the arch, we are back where we began in the nineteenth century Pacific. But strangely, it seems that this earliest of the characters in time knows everything about all the others and can describe their lives.
But as we work through these apparently different stories, we begin to perceive a thread. There are obvious links. In some shape or form, each new scenario demonstrates an awareness of what preceded it. But these obvious links are not the real thematic threads. We are interested in each story because we meet characters pursuing both cooperation and competition. We find people driven by belief, internally driven by motives they themselves cannot control. But it is this drive that forces them to act, and it is their actions that provoke responses, cooperative or competitive, in others, differences usually driven by perceived interest. And perhaps inevitably they all judge. They all seek personal advantage, but sometimes this is pursued via shared or group identity, alliances that both define and protect. We compete as individuals, but we also live by cooperation, applying judgment via assumption, presumption and prejudice, alongside what we excuse as intellect.
Thus Cloud Atlas examines the human condition. As an atlas it fixes certain aspects of humanity as constants, the ever-present belief, motivation and the need to act, to cooperate and compete. But the cloud is the nebulous form these constants may take in different time and place. We are driven by common traits towards unpredictable outcomes, the consequences of which our own future must accommodate and share. In Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell perhaps there is permanence along the way, but each scenario finds characters apparently forced by mere circumstance to act, to respond, to initiate, but only ever with partial sight of possible outcome. As the arch reveals its completion, we are back where we began, but we are richer for the experience, transformed by the journey. We might know where we are, but how do we respond? There, perhaps, is the permanent question.
Reading takes you there, sometimes even to places where you, the reader, may not want to go. Someone else, someone we have never met, did this, thought that, recorded it and related it. The reader, never unsuspecting, willingly takes the author’s hand to be led partially blind along others’ pathways, into foreign lands, or distant times in unfamiliar landscapes. If the experience proves rich, a reader has seen life, culture and time through another’s eyes and is richer for it.
And sometimes the experience is utterly surprising, especially when the landscape and culture in question is one whose recent press, and therefore the reader’s assumptions, are not wholly positive. It is then that the readers own assumptions may be questioned, even by apparently uncontroversial subjects. And it in this respect that the reading of The Story Of An African Farm by Olive Schreiner is thoroughly recommended.
It’s a novel published in 1883, focusing on the rites of passage from childhood to adulthood, from naïve encounter with nature to married expectancy of two orphaned girls, Em and Lyndall, growing up in a mixed, though predominantly Boer, determinedly white household. Now white South African culture of the nineteenth century has rarely commanded a sympathetic English language press. The twentieth century’s policy of separate development, Apartheid, they called it, can be traced to the assumptions and notions of separateness that we learn to take for granted in the pages of Olive Schreiner’s novel.
There is no attempt to explain or justify such ideas in the book. It is no bigot’s apology for failing. What it does do, however, is portray life for this family, and especially the two young girls within it. We grow with them through childhood to the goal of becoming women in a small farm in the dry karoo scrublands of South Africa. Daily life, with its wholly obligatory chores, is almost dispassionately described. These people were farmers, but in fact peasants in modern parlance, since they approached the activity not as a business, but as a means of achieving sustenance. They observed that cattle did not breed with ostriches and that different species inhabited their own cycles and niches of life. It’s what God decreed and, though there was always space for doubt and question, these were activities that could not publicly be expressed or acknowledged, since the bedrock of community might be undermined.
There was a perceived and assumed order to things, an order that had to be obeyed, the price for non-observance being non-survival. Outsiders, like guests at any formalised gathering where regular participants implicitly know the rules, were always seen as potential threats. And, when your nearest neighbour might be many miles away, separateness was part of the assumed and inhabited landscape. And so we see the concept applied even to the different people with whom these white farmers had to cultivate daily contact, contact without which none of them would have survived.
What happens to the two girls, Em and Lyndall, in their African farm is the very substance of the book, content that only should be revealed via the reading of the tale. Suffice it to say that this novel about lives lived within a system of apparently rigid rules eventually relates events that have all the characters questioning the very basis of the assumptions they live by. Life was hard, and often cruel. But that was the life they lived and, given their location in place and time, it was perhaps the only life that was possible. The Story Of An African Farm by Olive Schreiner is a book that certainly takes the reader into its own world. It presents a life and landscape that is both unfamiliar and little understood. By the end, we may be no more in sympathy with its reality, but we certainly do know more about it.
Thursday, January 14, 2016
Why might anyone want to read a book describing contemporary politics and international relations some thirty years after its publication? Surely a more recent history or overview would be preferable. Memoirs can always evoke recollections of the writer or the context in which the memorabilia were created. Overviews and analyses do retain their relevance, if sometimes not their accuracy when revisited some decades on from the events they describe. But a work of on-going contemporary commentary of a specific political issue, whose particularities perhaps no longer even apply to our times - why should anyone now read such a book?
It’s a question that was worth asking at the start of Joseph Hanlon’s 1984 work, Mozambique: The Revolution Under Fire. Written less than a decade after Frelimo had assumed power as the colonial Portuguese fled the country, this book is very much a snapshot of where Mozambique found itself in the early 1980s. At the time, most issues still remained unresolved. Most challenges facing the Frelimo government had still not been addressed, let alone overcome. As a consequence, events were moving fast and the regional situation remained fluid, to say the least. Thus it might be argued that such a work as Joseph Hanlon’s book barely retained its relevance on the day of its original publication, let alone some thirty years hence. But now it is the contemporary snapshots the book presents that make it all the more worthwhile a read.
Joseph Hanlon’s text summarises the history of Frelimo’s rise to power. He considers progress made or, indeed, not made in the nation’s healthcare, agriculture, education and general political restructuring. He considers Mozambique’s relations with its neighbours and its position in international politics and trade.
And it is here that we find real interest in Mozambique: The Revolution Under Fire. First, the book is couched firmly within the Cold War paradigm that was simply inescapable at the time. In the twenty-first century it is easy to forget that in the second half of the twentieth century it was impossible to write anything about international relations without framing it in the East versus West, Communism versus Capitalism struggle. Mozambique, of course, because of its professedly left-wing government was perceived to be in the Communist camp, but Joseph Hanlon regularly reminds us that, though this was inevitable, given the ideological leanings of Frelimo, in practice this did not necessarily mean that socialist policies were followed, or that assistance from the Soviet Union was received. It did mean that the country’s economy and its society was destabilised by external forces, ultimately backed by the United States. At the time, it was not the only nation in poverty whose internal privation was exacerbated by external aggression.
Secondly, reading Mozambique: The Revolution Under Fire, we are reminded of just how much change has been effected in the last thirty years. At time of writing, Zimbabwe was newly independent, while South Africa remained a determinedly apartheid state. The South African Development Coordination Conference was in only fledgling state, and still driven by the optimism that greeted its brief to promote economic integration amongst those nations primarily dependent on South Africa.
Thirdly, and perhaps paradoxically, the book reminds us of how little even revolutionary governments often manage to change via their own policies and actions. Nowhere is ever inherited as a blank slate, and existing practices, interests and structures inevitably have to be considered and accommodated. They can also be challenged, but again Joseph Hanlon’s book illustrates how difficult a task this always proves to be.
Fourthly, the book’s quite stunning appendix serves to illustrate just how complicated apparently simple problems can be. At a time when crops had failed as a result of drought and other had withered as a consequence of the disruption caused by war, Mozambique could not feed itself. Joseph Hanlon offers the intriguing analysis that under the conditions that pertained at the time, promoting agricultural development might have been both more costly and less effective that merely buying food in the open market.
So, rather than being a text which is relevant only to its own time, Joseph Hanlon’s Mozambique: The Revolution Under Fire now presents ideas and descriptions which challenge us to reinterpret the region as we now see it. The book reminds us that what we today assume to be the dominant paradigm through which we must interpret current events may be utterly inappropriate in a decade or two. Joseph Hanlon’s book was written to describe a quickly changing scenario in the 1980s, but it now reminds us that no matter how permanent some ideas may appear, they in fact represent no more than merely transient assumptions.